Saman Haddad, cultural mediator in Germany

"Don’t talk about integration, just do it"

The child of Iraqi refugees, Saman Haddad arrived in Germany twenty-five years ago at the age of thirteen. Now a well-known cultural figure in Bonn, Haddad doesn't wait for others to take the initiative. Nor does he let others' reactions put him off. Profile by Philipp Jedicke

In a room in the middle of the city centre of Bonn, Germany, Saman Haddad sits behind a transparent screen, singing. Hans-Joachim Busching, clarinettist in the Beethoven Orchestra, stands in front of the plastic screen and, with the help of his instrument, demonstrates how best to approach the singing at certain points of the piece. Around them a polyphony of European and Middle Eastern instruments are being played: a violin, guitars, an oud and a ney flute, among others.

Haddad, a lively man with curly black hair and a winning smile, is the organiser of the "1001 Takt – Zwischen Bonn und Babylon" ("1001 bars between Bonn and Babylon") workshop, part of the Beethoven anniversary year BTHVN2020. In the workshop, musicians from different musical traditions work with themes from Beethoven's 4th Symphony, which Busching and the musician Bassem Hawar, who is of Arab descent, have arranged.

"Something very important is happening here," says Busching. "People from different cultures are communicating through music." The goal of today's exercise, he said, is to intertwine the Beethoven fragments with an Arabic folk song. In the latter, "there is a completely different understanding, a different interpretation of notes," he says. "In this workshop, we want to bring listening back into Beethoven – the music itself, and not what was notated."

Saman Haddad both organised and participated in the "1001 Takt" workshop with the Beethoven Orchestra musicians playing music from the eastern tradition (photo: DW/Philipp Jedicke)
"People from different cultures communicating through music": Saman Haddad works on cultural projects such as the "1001 Takt – Zwischen Bonn und Babylon" ("1001 bars between Bonn and Babylon"), held as part of the Beethoven anniversary year BTHVN2020, supervising proceedings for the Bonn Institute for Migration Research and Intercultural Learning

Working tirelessly for the arts

Understanding nuance, forging connections and breaking down rigid social structures are Haddad's specialty. In Bonn, he has become a local celebrity – and not just because of his two bands, the 30-piece Kültürklüngel Orkestar and the "transnational trio" Golden Kebab. Haddad is more than a musician: he is engaged tirelessly in working for the arts, his energy seemingly boundless.

In recent years, he has organised concerts on boats and on double-decker buses, and has staged intercultural events and spontaneous outdoor "gala dinners" in downtown Bonn. He even travelled to his former hometown in northern Iraq to work with the culture industry on behalf of the Goethe-Institut. Behind it all is his love of bringing people together. 

Haddad describes himself as a "cultural mediator", but he has also been nicknamed "Kültürminister": a play on words in the Turkish language, which uses the letter "ü" a lot. Haddad is a fan of puns and jokes that mix European and Middle-Eastern cultures, and his pseudonym changes every few months – sometimes he calls himself Mustafa Mustermann, or Salvador Ali. 

It all began with food

Haddad's cultural mission began 10 years ago in his small kitchen. He had long been in the habit of inviting friends over to his house for dinner. "When we get together in the Middle East, we have to eat something while we're doing it, so I always served mezze and finger foods." At one point, he pulled an old guitar out of the basement and an impromptu jam session ensued.

Saman Haddad in his 4telbar, where his career as cultural ambassador first began (photo: DW/Philipp Jedicke)
"The hungry bear doesn't dance": "When we get together in the Middle East, we have to eat something while we're doing it – I always served mezze and finger foods." At one point, he pulled an old guitar out of the basement and an impromptu jam session ensued. "You have to satisfy the basic needs first, then people come out of their shells"

The musical meetings became regular events and his kitchen became something of an institution, often packed with music enthusiasts every Friday. The secret to his success? "In the Balkans, there's a beautiful saying: 'A hungry bear doesn't dance'. It's quite simple. You have to satisfy the basic needs first, then people come out of their shells."

Within a short space of time, he found he had created a large network of amateur and professional musicians. Haddad became well-known in his neighbourhood, and named his kitchen "4telbar", which is a play on the German words "Viertel Bar" – neighbourhood bar – for the open-minded spirit of his beloved Bonn neighbourhood; but the name also describes the quadrant-shaped bar in his kitchen. 

"Just do it"

Haddad began organising and curating concerts in the city's main garden as well as on the "Township" – a party boat in Bonn – collaborating with the city's rock and pop commissioner Hans-Joachim Over, among others.

When the open-air anniversary concert in honour of the 4telbar had to be cancelled due to coronavirus restrictions, Haddad came up with a solution: he went to the office of culture and asked Bonn's tourist information team if he could use an out-of-service double-decker bus to give pandemic-friendly concerts.

The authorities agreed, and Haddad put on 40 concerts – first in front of senior citizens' and refugees' homes, then throughout the city. "We gave some of our most beautiful performances in Tannenbusch," recalls Haddad, referring to a multi-cultural and marginalised neighbourhood of Bonn.

Haddad remembers the overwhelming reaction of the children to his bus concerts. In fact, it still gives him goose bumps when he thinks about it: "That's when we realised it was all worth it! These children will never forget the experience. And that's my incentive: to bring joy."

Saman Haddad's hometown of Erbil in northern Iraq (photo: picture-alliance/dpa/Jens Buttner)
Back to his roots: in 2019, Haddad returned to Erbil, his hometown in northern Iraq and capital of the autonomous Kurdistan region, to lead a pilot project for the Goethe-Institut. The time he spent in his home country grounded him: "I've lived in Germany for 25 years. At some point, you're part of society and you also have these 'first world' problems. In Iraq, I met artists who had nothing, but they had dreams!"

Haddad organises most of the events on a voluntary basis. He makes his living by working on cultural projects such as the "1001 Takt", the aforementioned workshop for the BTHVN2020 project, which he supervises for the Bonn Institute for Migration Research and Intercultural Learning.

An early educational journey

Born in Baghdad to parents with Kurdish, Arab and Indian roots, Haddad came to Germany with his four siblings and mother when he was 13. They followed their father, who had been tortured in prison for supporting the opposition against dictator Saddam Hussein in Iraq. At the time, he came to Germany for related medical treatment.

The family initially lived in asylum-seekers' homes, where Haddad would have to change schools every year. At some point, his German became too good for the required "remedial classes", but was still too weak for him to partake in regular classes. By the skin of his teeth, he managed to graduate from secondary school, but didn't know how to get ahead after that. 

He did an apprenticeship to become a plumber, but one day, when he had to dismantle a toilet bowl that "hadn’t been cleaned for years", he decided he had had enough, and became determined to make a change. Haddad went back to school, completed three apprenticeships in a row, and worked as a children's animator, a tour guide and on a cruise ship. 

Haddad was an avid reader, initially teaching himself new things through the books he read. In doing so, he began to understand himself better. "Many migrants don't study because they have two personalities inside them. On the one hand, you're the good kid at home, doing everything your parents say and living according to the culture of your country of origin. But outside, you live out your other personality. This realisation has also made me become more honest with my parents."

Saman Haddad's pandemic-friendly concert bus, with which he and his "Kültürklüngel Orkester" staged concerts around Bonn in 2020 (photo: Lukas Hess)
Pandemic-friendly concerts: when an open-air anniversary concert in honour of the 4telbar was cancelled due to coronavirus restrictions, Haddad went to Bonn's tourist information office and requested the use of an out-of-service double-decker bus. Forty concerts were held – in front of senior citizens' and refugees' homes, and throughout the city. Haddad still recalls the overwhelming reaction of children in Tannenbusch – a multi-cultural and marginalised neighbourhood to the concerts: "That's when we realised it was all worth it! These children will never forget the experience. And that's my incentive: To bring joy!"

Return to Iraq

In 2019, he returned to Erbil, his hometown in northern Iraq and capital of the autonomous Kurdistan region, to lead a pilot project for the Goethe-Institut. He had lived in the city from the age of six until his family fled to Germany. In Erbil, Haddad was tasked with organising a conference, which focused on promoting the cultural and creative industries in northern Iraq. "The job was like treading a diplomatic tightrope," says Haddad. "Because I had to satisfy both the German and Iraqi sides." 

This time spent in his home country also grounded him: "I've lived in Germany for 25 years. At some point, you're part of society and you also have these "first world" problems. In Iraq, I met artists who had nothing, but they had dreams." He said he was tempted to stay in Iraq, but decided to return to Bonn.

He wanted to study to become a teacher and was particularly drawn to the German language and philosophy. He felt he wanted to "give something back to the country" and "encourage migrants who are so helpless, just like I was."

An immigrant's contribution

But despite several attempts, he was denied admission to regular university. So he studied at the distance-learning university of Hagen, working part-time as a removalist or waiter. When Haddad finally got a well-paid job at the embassy of the United Arab Emirates, he paused his studies. But it was precisely during this time that the 4telbar success story began. The rest is history. 

 

His favourite quote to see him through the good and the bad times comes from German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: "Who knows himself and others well / No longer may ignore: / Orient and Occident dwell / Separately no more."

"Even though I don't like the word at all, the concept of 'integration' has always existed," Haddad says. "When I go to another city, to another country, I adapt to the circumstances there. And when someone comes to me as a guest, then I approach them. Integration applies to everyone, whether they're the host or not."

Saman Haddad doesn't wait for others to take the initiative, and that’s why his spontaneity sometimes causes a stir. Nor does he let others' reactions put him off. "You don't have to talk about integration, just do it. Eat together, play soccer together, make music together, dance together. Then integration happens on its own."

Haddad's biggest dream is to establish a city partnership between Erbil and Bonn, to "bring his old and new homes together through culture." With his go-getting attitude, it appears the sky is the limit.

Philipp Jedicke

© Deutsche Welle 2021

Translated from the German by Sarah Hucal

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